Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XLIII

Cynthia’s Confession

‘You said I might come,’ said Molly, ‘and that you would tell me all.’

‘You know all, I think,’ said Cynthia heavily. ‘Perhaps you don’t know what excuses I have, but at any rate you know what a scrape I am in.’

‘I’ve been thinking a great deal,’ said Molly timidly and doubtfully. ‘And I can’t help fancying if you told papa —’

Before she could go on, Cynthia had stood up.

‘No!’ said she. ‘That I won’t. Unless I’m to leave here at once. And you know I have not another place to go to — without warning I mean. I dare say my uncle would take me in, he’s a relation, and would be bound to stand by me in whatever disgrace I might be; or perhaps I might get a governess’s situation; a pretty governess I should be!’

‘Pray, please, Cynthia, don’t go off into such wild talking. I don’t believe you’ve done so very wrong. You say you have not, and I believe you. That horrid man has managed to get you involved in some way; but I’m sure papa could set it to rights, if you would only make a friend of him and tell him all —’

‘No, Molly,’ said Cynthia, ‘I can’t, and there’s an end of it. You may if you like, only let me leave the house first; give me that much time.’

‘You know I would never tell anything you wished me not to tell, Cynthia,’ said Molly, deeply hurt.

‘Would you not, darling?’ said Cynthia, taking her hand. ‘Will you promise me that? quite a sacred promise? — for it would be such a comfort to me to tell you all, now you know so much.’

‘Yes! I’ll promise not to tell. You should not have doubted me,’ said Molly, still a little sorrowfully.

‘Very well. I trust to you. I know I may.’

‘But do think of telling papa, and getting him to help you,’ persevered Molly.

‘Never,’ said Cynthia resolutely, but more quietly than before. ‘Do you think I forget what he said at the time of that wretched Mr Coxe; how severe he was, and how long I was in disgrace, if indeed I’m out of it now? I am one of those people, as mamma says sometimes — I cannot live with persons who don’t think well of me. It may be a weakness, or a sin, I am sure I don’t know and I don’t care; but I really cannot be happy in the same house with any one who knows my faults, and thinks that they are greater than my merits. Now you know your father would do that. I have often told you that he (and you too, Molly) had a higher standard than I had ever known. Oh, I could not bear it — if he were to know he would be so angry with me — he would never get over it, and I have so liked him! I do so like him.’

‘Well, never mind, dear; he shall not know,’ said Molly, for Cynthia was again becoming hysterical — ‘at least we’ll say no more about it now.’

‘And you’ll never say any more — never — promise me,’ said Cynthia, taking her hand eagerly.

‘Never till you give me leave. Now do let me see if I cannot help you. Lie down on the bed, and I will sit by you, and let us talk it over.’

But Cypthia sate down again in the chair by the dressing-table.

‘When did it all begin?’ said Molly, after a long pause of silence.

‘Long ago — four or five years. I was such a child to be left all to myself. It was the holidays, and mamma was away visiting, and the Donaldsons asked me to go with them to the Worcester Festival. You can’t fancy how pleasant it all sounded, especially to me. I had been shut up in that great dreary house at Ashcombe, where mamma had her school; it belonged to Lord Cumnor, and Mr. Preston as his agent had to see it all painted and papered; but besides that he was very intimate with us: I believe mamma thought — no, I’m not sure about that, and I have enough blame to lay at her door, to prevent my telling you anything that may be only fancy —’

Then she paused, and sate still for a minute or two, recalling the past. Molly was struck by the aged and careworn expression which had taken temporary hold of the brilliant and beautiful face; she could see from that how much Cynthia must have suffered from this hidden trouble of hers.

‘Well! at any, rate we were intimate with him, and he came a great deal about the house, and knew as much as any one of mamma’s affairs, and all the ins and outs of her life. I’m telling you that in order that you may understand how natural it was for me to answer his questions when he came one day and found me, not crying, for you know I’m not much given to that, in spite of today’s exposure of myself; but fretting and fuming because, though mamma had written word I might go with the Donaldsons, she had never said how I was to get any money for the journey, much less for anything of dress, and I had outgrown all my last year’s frocks, and as for gloves and boots — in short, I really had hardly clothes decent enough for church —’

‘Why did not you write to her and tell her all this?’ said Molly, half afraid of appearing to cast blame by her very natural question.

‘I wish I had her letter to show you; you must have seen some of mamma’s letters, though; don’t you know how she always seems to leave out just the important point of every fact? In this case she descanted largely on the enjoyment she was having, and the kindness she was receiving, and her wish that I could have been with her, and her gladness that I too was going to have some pleasure, but the only thing that would have been of real use to me she left out, and that was where she was going to next. She mentioned that she was leaving the house she was stopping at the day after she wrote, and that she should be at home by a certain date; but I got the letter on a Saturday, and the festival began on the next Tuesday —’

‘Poor Cynthia!’ said Molly. ‘Still, if you had written, your letter might have been forwarded. I don’t mean to be hard, only I do so dislike the thought of your ever having made a friend of that man.’

‘Ah!’ said Cynthia, sighing. ‘How easy it is to judge rightly after one sees what evil comes from judging wrongly: I was only a young girl, hardly more than a child, and he was a friend to us then; excepting mamma, the only friend I knew; the Donaldsons were only kind and good-natured acquaintances.’

‘I am sorry,’ said Molly humbly, ‘I have been so happy with papa. I hardly can understand how different it must have been with you.’

‘Different! I should think so. The worry about money made me sick of my life. We might not say we were poor, it would have injured the school, but I would have stinted and starved if mamma and I had got on as happily together as we might have done — as you and Mr. Gibson do. It was not the poverty; it was that she never seemed to care to have me with her. As soon as the holidays came round, she was off to some great house or another, and I dare say I was at a very awkward age to have me lounging about in her drawing-room when callers came. Girls at the age I was then are so terribly keen at scenting out motives, and putting in their awkward questions as to the little twistings and twirlings and vanishings of conversation; they’ve no distinct notion of what are the truths and falsehoods of polite life. At any rate I was very much in mamma’s way, and I felt it. Mr Preston seemed to feel it too for me; and I was very grateful to him for kind words and sympathetic looks — crumbs of kindness which would have dropped under your table unnoticed. So this day, when he came to see how the workmen were getting on, he found me in the deserted schoolroom, looking at my faded summer bonnet and some old ribbons I had been sponging out, and half-worn-out gloves — a sort of rag-fair spread out on the deal table. I was in a regular passion with only looking at that shabbiness. He said he was so glad to hear I was going to this festival with the Donaldsons; old Betty, our servant, had told him the news, I believe. But I was so perplexed about money, and my vanity was so put out about my shabby dress, that I was in a pet, and said I should not go. He sate down on the table, and little by little he made me tell him all my troubles. I do sometimes think he was very nice in those days. Somehow I never felt as if it was wrong or foolish or anything to accept his offer of money at the time. He had twenty pounds in his pocket, he said, and really did not know what to do with it, should not want it for months; I could repay it, or rather mamma could, when it suited her. She must have known I should want money, and most likely thought I should apply to him. Twenty pounds would not be too much, I must take it all, and so on. I knew, at least I thought I knew, that I should never spend twenty pounds; but I thought I could give him back what I did not want, and so — well, that was the beginning! It does not sound so very wrong, does it, Molly?’

‘No,’ said Molly, hesitatingly. She did not wish to make herself into a hard judge, and yet she did so dislike Mr. Preston. Cynthia went on —

‘Well, what with boots and gloves, and a bonnet and a mantle, and a white muslin gown, which was made for me before I left on the Tuesday, and a silk gown that followed to the Donaldsons’, and my journeys, and all, there was very little left of the twenty pounds, especially when I found I must get a ball-dress in Worcester, for we were all to go to the Ball. Mrs. Donaldson gave me my ticket, but she rather looked grave at my idea of going to the Ball in my white muslin, which I had already worn two evenings at their house. Oh dear! how pleasant it must be to be rich! You know,’ continued Cynthia, smiling a very little, ‘I can’t help being aware that I am pretty, and that people admire me very much. I found it out first at the Donaldsons’. I began to think I did look pretty in my fine new clothes, and I saw that other people thought so too. I was certainly the belle of the house, and it was very pleasant to feel my power. The last day or two of that gay week Mr. Preston joined our party. The last time he had seen me was when I was dressed in shabby clothes too small for me, half-crying in my solitude, neglected and penniless. At the Donaldsons’ I was a little queen; and as I said, fine feathers make fine birds, all the people were making much of me; and at that ball, which was the first night he came, I had more partners than I knew what to do with. I suppose he really did fall in love with me then. I don’t think he had done so before. And then I began to feel how awkward it was to be in his debt. I could not give myself airs to him as I did to others. Oh! it was so awkward and uncomfortable! But I liked him, and felt him as a friend all the time. The last day I was walking in the garden along with the others, and I thought I would tell him how much I had enjoyed myself, and how happy I had been, all thanks to his twenty pounds (I was beginning to feel like Cinderella when the clock was striking twelve), and to tell him it should be repaid to him as soon as possible, though I turned sick at the thought of telling mamma, and knew enough of our affairs to understand how very difficult it would be to muster up the money. The end of our talk came very soon, for almost to my terror he began to talk violent love to me, and to beg me to promise to marry him. I was so frightened, that I ran away to the others. But that night I got a letter from him, apologizing for startling me, renewing his offer, his entreaties for a promise of marriage, to be fulfilled at any date I would please to name — in fact a most urgent love-letter, and in it a reference to my unlucky debt, which was to be a debt no longer, only an advance of the money to be hereafter mine if only — You can fancy it all, Molly, better than I can remember it to tell it you.’

‘And what did you say?’ asked Molly, breathless.

‘I did not answer it at all until another letter came, entreating for a reply. By that time mamma had come home, and the old daily pressure and plaint of poverty had come on. Mary Donaldson wrote to me often, singing the praises of Mr. Preston as enthusiastically as if she had been bribed to do it. I had seen him a very popular man in their set, and I liked him well enough, and felt grateful to him. So I wrote and gave him my promise to marry him when I was twenty, but it was to be a secret till then. And I tried to forget I had ever borrowed money of him, but somehow as soon as I felt pledged to him I began to hate him. I could not endure his eagerness of greeting if ever he found me alone; and mamma began to suspect, I think. I cannot tell you all the ins and outs, in fact I did not understand them at the time, and I don’t remember clearly how it all happened now. But I know that Lady Cuxhaven sent mamma some money to be applied to my education as she called it, and mamma seemed very much put out and in very low spirits, and she and I did not get on at all together. So of course I never ventured to name the hateful twenty pounds to her, but went on trying to think that if I was to marry Mr. Preston, it need never be paid — very mean and wicked I dare say, but oh, Molly, I’ve been punished for it, for how I abhor that man.’

‘But why? When did you begin to dislike him? You seem to have taken it very passively all this time.’

‘I don’t know. It was growing upon me before I went to that school at Boulogne. He made me feel as if I was in his power; and by too often reminding me of my engagement to him, he made me critical of his words and ways. There was an insolence in his manner to mamma, too. Ah! you’re thinking that I’m not too respectful a daughter — and perhaps not; but I could not bear his covert sneers at her faults, and I hated his way of showing what he called his “love” for me. Then, after I had been a semestre at Madame Lefevre’s, a new English girl came — a cousin of his, who knew but little of me. Now, Molly, you must forget as soon as I have told you what I am going to say — and she used to talk much and perpetually about her cousin Robert — he was the great man of the family, evidently — and how he was so handsome, and every lady of the land in love with him — a lady of title into the bargain.’

‘Lady Harriet! I dare say,’ said Molly, indignantly.

‘I don’t know,’ said Cynthia, wearily. ‘I didn’t care at the time, and I don’t care now; for she went on to say there was a very pretty widow too, who made desperate love to him. He had often laughed with them at all her little advances, which she thought he did not see through — and — oh — and this was the man I had promised to marry, and gone into debt to, and written love-letters to. So now you understand it all, Molly.’

‘No, I don’t yet. What did you do on hearing how he had spoken about your mother?’

‘There was but one thing to do. I wrote and told him I hated him, and would never, never marry him, and would pay him back his money and the interest of it as soon as ever I could.’

‘Well?’

‘And Madame Lefevre brought me back my letter — unopened, I will say; and told me that she did not allow letters to gentlemen to be sent by the pupils of her establishment unless she had previously seen their contents. I told her he was a family friend, the agent who managed mamma’s affairs — I really could not stick at the truth; but she would not let it go; and I had to see her burn it, and to give her my promise I would not write again before she would consent not to tell mamma. So I had to calm down, and wait till I came home.’

‘But you did not see him then; at least, not for some time.’

‘No, but I could write; and I began to try and save up my money to pay him.’

‘What did he say to your letter?’

‘Oh, at first he pretended not to believe I could be in earnest; he thought it was only pique, or a temporary offence to be apologized for and covered over with passionate protestations.’

‘And afterwards?’

‘He condescended to threats; and, what is worse, then I turned coward. I could not bear to have it all known and talked about, and my silly letters shown — oh, such letters — I cannot bear to think of them, beginning, “My dearest Robert,” to that man —’

‘But, oh, Cynthia, how could you go and engage yourself to Roger?’ asked Molly.

‘Why not?’ said Cynthia, sharply turning round upon her. ‘I was free — I am free; it seemed a way of assuring myself that I was quite free; and I did like Roger — it was such a comfort to be brought into contact with people who could be relied upon; and I was not a stock or a stone that I could fail to be touched with his tender, unselfish love, so different to Mr. Preston’s. I know you don’t think me good enough for him; and, of course, if all this comes out, he won’t think me good enough either’ (falling into a plaintive tone very touching to hear); ‘and sometimes I think I will give him up, and go off to some fresh life amongst strangers; and once or twice I have thought I would marry Mr. Preston out of pure revenge, and have him for ever in my power — only I think I should have the worst of it, for he is cruel in his very soul — tigerish, with his beautiful striped skin and relentless heart. I have so begged and begged him to let me go without exposure.’

‘Never mind the exposure,’ said Molly. ‘It will recoil far more on him than harm you.’

Cynthia went a little paler. ‘But I said things in those letters about mamma. I was quick-eyed enough to all her faults, and hardly understood the force of her temptations; and he says he will show those letters to your father, unless I consent to acknowledge our engagement.’

‘He shall not!’ said Molly, rising up in her indignation, and standing before Cynthia almost as resolutely fierce as if she were in the very presence of Mr. Preston himself. ‘I am not afraid of him. He dare not insult me, or if he does, I do not care. I will ask him for those letters, and see if he will dare to refuse me.’

‘You don’t know him,’ said Cynthia, shaking her head. ‘He has made many an appointment with me, just as if he would take back the money — which has been sealed up ready for him this four months; or as if he would give me back my letters. Poor, poor Roger! How little he thinks of all this. When I want to write words of love to him I pull myself up, for I have written words as affectionate to that other man. And if Mr. Preston ever guessed that Roger and I were engaged he would manage to be revenged on both him and me by giving us as much pain as he could with those unlucky letters — written when I was not sixteen, Molly — only seven of them! They are like a mine under my feet, which may blow up any day; and down will come father and mother and all.’ She ended bitterly enough, though her words were so light.

‘How can I get them?’ said Molly, thinking — ‘for get them I will. With papa to back me, he dare not refuse.’

‘Ah! But that’s just the thing. He knows I’m afraid of your father’s hearing of it all, more than of any one else.’

‘And yet he thinks he loves you!’

‘It is his way of loving. He says often enough he does not care what he does so that he gets me to be his wife; and that after that he is sure he can make me love him.’ Cynthia began to cry, out of weariness of body and despair of mind. Molly’s arms were round her in a minute, and she pressed the beautiful head to her bosom, and laid her own cheek upon it, and hushed her up with lulling words, just as if Cynthia were a little child.

‘Oh, it is such a comfort to have told you all!’ murmured she. And Molly made reply — ‘I am sure we have right on our side; and that makes me certain he must and shall give up the letters.’

‘And take the money?’ added Cynthia, lifting her head, and looking eagerly into Molly’s face. ‘He must take the money. Oh, Molly, you can never manage it all without its coming out to your father! And I would far rather go out to Russia as a governess. I almost think I would rather — no, not that,’ said she, shuddering away from what she was going to say. ‘But he must not know — please, Molly, he must not know. I could not bear it. I don’t know what I might not do. You’ll promise me never to tell him, or mamma?’

‘I never will. You do not think I would for anything short of saving —’ She was going to have said, ‘saving you and Roger from pain.’ But Cynthia broke in —

‘For nothing. No reason whatever must make you tell your father. If you fail, you fail, and I will love you for ever for trying; but I shall be no worse than before. Better, indeed; for I shall have the comfort of your sympathy. But promise me not to tell Mr. Gibson.’

‘I have promised once,’ said Molly, ‘but I promise again; so now do go to bed, and try and rest. You are looking as white as a sheet; you’ll be ill if you don’t get some rest; and it’s past two o’clock, and you’re shivering with cold.’

So they wished each other good-night. But when Molly got into her room all her spirit left her; and she threw herself down on her bed, dressed as she was, for she had no heart left for anything. If Roger ever heard of it all by any chance, she felt how it would disturb his love for Cynthia. And yet was it right to conceal it from him? She must try and persuade Cynthia to tell it all straight out to him as soon as he returned to England. A full confession on her part would wonderfully lessen any pain he might have on first hearing of it. She lost herself in thoughts of Roger — how he would feel, what he would say, how that meeting would come to pass, where he was at that very time, and so on, till she suddenly plucked herself up, and recollected what she herself had offered and promised to do. Now that the first fervour was over, she saw the difficulties clearly; and the foremost of all was how she was to manage to have a tete-a-tete with Mr. Preston? How had Cynthia managed? and the letters that had passed between them too? Unwillingly, Molly was compelled to perceive that there must have been a great deal of underhand work going on beneath Cynthia’s apparent openness of behaviour; and still more unwillingly she began to be afraid that she herself would be led into the practice. But she would try and walk in a straight path; and if she did wander out of it, it should only be to save pain to those whom she loved.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:18